We sing to celebrate, we sing to mourn. We sing for comfort, for grace, to set ourselves apart and to merge with others. These myriad uses of music all inform Choir Boy, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s lyrical new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, which is at once greatly affecting and thematically overstretched.
As in the bayou families of The Brother/Sister Plays and the drag clans of Wig Out!, McCraney has again plunged audiences into a close-knit world—here, the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, an elite academy for African-American youth. The story centers on five members of the school’s celebrated choir and the two adults who occasionally intervene, the headmaster (Chuck Cooper, granted one glorious song) and a teacher on the verge of retirement (Austin Pendleton, who wisely sticks to the spoken word).
The play opens as Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope) sings the school anthem, “Trust and Obey,” with a voice even a seraph might envy. The turn of his hip, the angle of his head, and the flourish he gives as he walks downstage all signal his queerness. But when an unseen voice begins to taunt him—hissing “sissy” and “faggot ass nigga”—the notes die in Pharus’s throat. Though Pharus is seemingly open about his sexuality, he is also acutely ashamed of it, and the play explores both his need to assert himself and to conform to the rigid blazer-and-tie expectations of Drew Prep.
His jock roommate, AJ (Grantham Coleman), reassures him, saying, “You’ve been doing good.” But Pharus turns on him: “Good? I been doing great. It only seem good because everybody always want me to do bad. All the great I got get diminished.” Even in this bit of conversation, written in a register appropriately different from the boys’ classroom speech, you can hear the musicality of McCraney’s dialogue—the close attention to rhythm, the sharp, staccato consonance of “the great I got get” that indicates Pharus’s frustration.
It takes a brave writer to set his language against the plaintive beauty of the hymns and spirituals (and occasional New Edition number) that form the boys’ repertoire, skillfully arranged by Jason Michael Webb. But McCraney’s speech holds its own, locating poetry even in casual vernacular and again demonstrating his gift for simile and metaphor, as when one boy’s giggle sounds like “two fat ladies amused by cake” or another’s feet smell like “baby puke” and “corn chips.” If there’s another playwright as sensitive to the sound of words as to their denotation, you wouldn’t know it.
Director Trip Cullman works to make the play a cohesive whole, blending the conversations with the songs, allowing scenes to flow into one another. But as the conclusion nears, the play’s top-heavy structure (also a flaw in Wig Out!) becomes more apparent. McCraney has taken on not only themes of race, sexuality, and the service of music, but also faith, bullying, pedagogy, and strained familial relations. It’s too much, as seen in a series of unrewarding episodes that seem borrowed from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and that not even Pendleton’s substantial shambling charm can fully rescue.
But why criticize a playwright for ambition, particularly when McCraney can ably realize so much of what he intends? Instead, give over to the deeply felt performances, the rich emotional landscape, the muscular lyricism. Or, as Pharus sings, just trust and obey.